Durban - Police officers were alone in the fight against heavily armed criminals and should “fight fire with fire” to protect themselves, the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said on Monday.
Lashing out at police management after the murder of Constable Zethu Cele in Durban on Saturday night, a livid union boss, Zizamele Cebekhulu, accused both the KwaZulu-Natal and national police brass of offering “lip service” instead of devising measures to adequately protect police from armed criminals.
The union called for changes to legislation to ensure those who kill police meet the same fate.
Police killings were barbaric, undemocratic and defeated the purpose of law enforcement, Cebekhulu said.
“The rule of law is backed by police officers. Those who kill our officers must be killed. This is an assault on government.”
Zethu, 29, is the fifth police member to be killed on duty in KZN this year – and one of five murdered in the country over the past weekend.
Also on Saturday, a 41-year-old policeman, Sergeant Michael Sibongiseni Khawula, was shot dead while driving home near Hibberdene.
“He was shot on his body and head. The car left the road and came to a standstill on a verge,” police spokesman, Captain Thulani Zwane, said on Monday. “The car was riddled with bullets.”
Cebekhulu said the lives of police officers, especially those killed in the line of duty, should not be lost in vain.
“We call on our members to defend themselves. We can’t rely on provincial police management or the minister because all they can offer is lip service. In reality, police officers are on their own, so they must fight fire with fire,” he said.
The Daily News reported on Monday that Cele and her colleague, Sergeant Ephraim Zulu, were patrolling in Bentley Road when they were alerted to an assault at a car wash in the area. At the scene they came under fire from seven men – all wearing balaclavas.
The security manager at the car wash, Tshibangu Kalambo, said it appeared Cele was shot in the head and several times in the heart area.
Zwane confirmed that Cele was shot several times and that she was the fifth officer on duty to be killed in the province this year. He would not say whether she had been wearing a bulletproof vest.
He said it was worrying that once police murder suspects were apprehended, they got free legal representation in court.
KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said Cebekhulu’s statement was irresponsible and dangerous. She said, however that police management should be held responsible.
“There’s a huge deterioration in police management. Lack of intelligence accompanied by a network of informers is making it easy for criminals to get away with murder,” she said.
“In fact, you have some police officers colluding with criminals, hence the difficulty in apprehending the latter.”
Said De Haas: “Crime intelligence has become a political football and the good guys like the murdered policewoman and others suffer. Police management should be held responsible for every officer killed in the line of duty.”
On suspected criminals afforded free state legal representation, De Haas said everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
“If we have police who are able to gather evidence and build water-tight cases against suspected criminals, then we would not be worrying about the free legal service they (suspects) get from the state.
“My point is, there has been a general decline in police management and this poses a danger to dedicated officers.”
Provincial police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Mmamonnye Ngobeni declined to comment on the allegations made against police management.
Asked if the two Durban officers had bulletproof vests on, Ngobeni said: “Our focus now should be to assist and comfort the bereaved family. We can’t be dwelling on allegations that the officers were or were not wearing bulletproof vests.”
She said a task team had been set up to investigate the murder and urged people to come forward with any information that could help in apprehending the suspects.
Ngobeni referred the Daily News to the national office for further comment.
In a statement on Monday evening, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega said four officers were killed at the weekend - two in Gauteng, one in the Eastern Cape and one in KZN.
“The loss of a police officer is not only a loss to the SAPS and the family but the community as well. This was a sad and painful weekend for the service,” she said.
“Multidisciplinary task teams have been set up to investigate the deaths and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book.”
Kwanele Ncalane, spokesman for Community Safety and Liaison MEC Willies Mchunu, said the MEC was the first to acknowledge that there were “rotten potatoes” in the police service.
“The MEC appeals to communities to report police who get involved in criminal activities.
“Although I don’t have the number of arrested officers for criminal activities, last month an officer was involved in a taxi violence shooting in Mandeni, and he was arrested,” he said. “We are trying to root out the criminal elements from the service.”
Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, said criminals killed police officers because they did not get caught.
“This is disturbing, but killing suspects is not the solution,” he said.
“Police need proper training and adequate resources to enable them to arrest these criminals. Once arrested life imprisonment sentences should be imposed.”
* Additional reporting by Zainul Dawood